Documenting Black Latter-day Saint experiences

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I am writing this on Martin Luther King Day — a federal holiday in which Americans are called to reflect upon some of the most difficult and gut-wrenching parts of our history. (Allie Kneeland)

I am writing this on Martin Luther King Day — a federal holiday in which Americans are called to reflect upon some of the most difficult and gut-wrenching parts of our history. 

King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” set off bells of truth in my soul. 

“We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people,” King wrote. “We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men willing to be coworkers with God, and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.” 

The United States has underserved, underrepresented, and disrespected people of African descent since its inception. As a white woman, I am incapable of fully understanding the Black American experience. I will never understand what it feels like to navigate systems and institutions that aren’t built for me and are often actively trying to stunt my success. But what I can do as a white woman is utilize my God-given abilities of compassion and listen to the experiences of my Black brothers and sisters. 

Malorie Blackman, a Black British author, said, “Reading is an exercise in empathy; an exercise in walking in someone else’s shoes for a while.” 

Through Alice Faulkner Burch’s book “My Lord, He Calls Me,” readers can step outside themselves and appreciate the various experiences of Black American Latter-day Saints. The same bells of truth that rang as I read King’s words echoed through my heart and mind as I read this compelling collection of essays from Black Latter-day Saints of varying ages, backgrounds, and spiritual journeys. Dedicated to the first Black American pioneers of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, this book invites readers to consider the unique experiences as well as challenges Black members within the Church face. 

Burch’s poetry is scattered throughout the book, and her poem “Jesus Understands Me Black” compares the plight of Black Americans with the struggles of Jesus, highlighting how intimately He understands their pain. 

The book’s title comes from the lyrics of a Black Christian spiritual called “Steal Away to Jesus.” The song reads, “Steal away, steal away. Steal away to Jesus. Steal away, steal away home. I ain’t got long to stay here. My Lord, He calls me. He calls me by the thunder. The trumpet sounds within my soul: I ain’t got long to stay here.” 

A common theme in many stories is the call people have felt to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, even when the Church wasn’t the most welcoming environment for African Americans. 

Accounts, journals, and records of early Black American members are few due to a lack of preserved documents and their denial of education. This adds another element of sacredness to this collection of early and modern Black Latter-day Saint stories because if it were possible to accurately recount the stories of all the remarkable Black Latter-day Saint pioneers throughout the Church’s history, this book would surely triple in size.

The Book of Mormon, in 2 Nephi 26:33, says, “… (H)e inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile.” 

In Acts, Peter teaches that God is no respecter of persons. No matter the color skin draped over our bones, our spirits hail from the same long home. One beautiful aspect of many of the essays shared in “My Lord, He Calls Me” is how Black members have come to discover their divine worth and nature. 

“Since becoming a member of the Church, I feel a tremendous amount of spiritual groundedness and gratitude for being covered in this body of color,” writes Lita Little Giddins. “Acknowledging my blackness and standing confidently in my blackness keeps me intimately connected to my God and is vital to my existence as I continue to learn its positionality in God’s plan.” 

Burch’s poetry is scattered throughout the book, and her poem “Jesus Understands Me Black” compares the plight of Black Americans with the struggles of Jesus, highlighting how intimately He understands their pain. 

“My Lord, He Calls Me” is filled with stories of undeniable spiritual witnesses and heavenly encounters that led Black Americans to the Church. In his essay entitled, “God Wanted Me in This Church,” Stuart Scott writes, “… I pondered the many events that now were obvious indications of God’s plan for me. It was as if I was reading a road map backward; each marker was an indication that He wanted me in this Church more than I wanted to be in this Church.”

Sherri Camp shared the story of how her mother had a dream about an angel blowing a horn before meeting the missionaries, and Burch shared her story of calling the missionaries and asking to be baptized as a young girl after having a spiritual revelation. Rodric Anthony Johnson discovered The Book of Mormon at his school library while looking for a book on the Moors of Africa. Each essay is overflowing with God’s grace and miracles, proving that God’s truth and light is available for everyone, no matter their color. 

Although The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints openly condemns racism in any shape or form, it has not escaped the influence of years of American anti-Black rhetoric, legislation, and prejudice. Many essays in “My Lord, He Calls Me” discuss how members reacted to and coped with the Church’s priesthood ban that refused the priesthood and temple ordinances to members of African descent from 1852 to 1978. Black members of the Church can now enjoy the blessings of the priesthood and the temple. This is a result of what Burch calls “the restoration of the priesthood as Brother Joseph originally received it,” but there remain lasting residual effects of centuries of oppression within the United States and in the Church itself. 

Robert S. Burch Jr. writes, “As long as (racism) is a thing, I remain faith-filled that the gospel of Jesus Christ is the only way to uplift and obtain salvation in our earthly struggle. It succors in the depths of virulent hatred after we have done all we can do.”

Ultimately, “My Lord, He Calls Me” is a book of unity. God created a world of color, and it is to be neither feared nor ignored but celebrated. The rich stories of faith found in this collection are evidence that God has and continues to call out to His children, no matter what color they may be. God sees color. Jesus sees color. Not only do They see color but They embrace and love all shades of people, and so should we.  

It has been 60 years since Martin Luther King Jr. penned his letter from Birmingham Jail calling for us all to be “coworkers with God” in rooting out racism within our country. Reading the stories of Black American Latter-day Saints and familiarizing ourselves with their experiences is one way we can truly become our brother’s keeper and coworkers with God in creating a more loving, fair, and just world for all of His children. 

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